This article briefly introduces a very basic understanding of the psychological principles to the internal processes of how schemas work and how the superwoman syndrome (or superman?) and core beliefs might be related to that. There is good reason to why good professionals undergo rigorous study, training and registration standards in how to apply these therapeutically (so don’t try too hard to do it on your own if it is confusing). The aim here is to give you an introductory understanding-hack’ to reflect on your own core beliefs and whether they are negatively impacting you. Ultimately your core beliefs about yourself may not only directly impact your professional practice, but potentially every aspect of your life. Maybe a smidge important? 

A schema can be a very complex and dynamic process that possesses eight different features operating concurrently in your internal processing; in response to a stressful event or trigger (Ghost & Gilboa, 2014, pp. 104 – 114). To simplify it; and hopefully not brutalise it; it is an embedded model of how you deal with a specific stressor that has repeated on numerous occasions in your life (Ghost & Gilboa, 2014, pp. 104 – 114).  

A schema becomes a network made up of associated feelings, thoughts and responses that work to process that stressor – which looks or feels like your own personal history repeating (even when the cause could be unrelated) (Ghost & Gilboa, 2014, pp. 104 – 114). An embedded ‘maladaptive’ schema is almost always related to negative experiences in early life (Otani, Suzuki, Matsumoto & Shirata, 2018, pp. 863 – 866). 

One form is an ‘autonomous’ schema, which thrives on inner notions of helplessness and incompetence, and manifests as striving excessively for independence, self-control and achievement (Otani, Suzuki, Matsumoto & Shirata, 2018, pp. 863 – 866). Another type is a ‘sociotropic’ schema, which stems from perceived threats of total abandonment and deprivation of gratification; and looks like endlessly seeking interpersonal approval and acceptance (Otani, Suzuki, Matsumoto & Shirata, 2018, pp. 863 – 866). Life events and stress that are “congruent with the content of [maladaptive] self-schemas lead to increased susceptibility to depression” (Otani, Suzuki, Matsumoto & Shirata, 2018, pp. 863 – 866). Basically feeling trapped and not having the tools to get out (there is support available).

If that all seems a bit much to wrap your head around (which it did for me when I first learnt about schemas!), a good place to start is getting to the heart of what your core beliefs about yourself are, as this is where it all begins. A fundamental negative core belief might be “I am helpless”, or “I am unlovable” (Otani, Suzuki, Matsumoto & Shirata, 2018, pp. 863 – 866). Negative core beliefs can be changed – just like bad behaviours. If you think about that nasty self-judgement as an actual behaviour, you can treat those thoughts as unwanted when you catch them midway – and begin to replace them with kind thoughts…. And weed them out. Like real weeds, it’ll take a bunch of gardening (it’s worth it!).

The ‘superwoman’ ideal is when women do, try, appear or pretend to be uber successful through being able to ‘do it all’ (Newell, 1993, p. 277). Prominent themes identified as some characteristics in the superwoman schema include that she “embodies and displays multiple forms of strength; possesses self or ethnic pride in spite of intersectional oppression; embraces being every woman; and anchored by religion or spirituality” (Abrams, Maxwell, Pope & Belgrave, 2014). These are great strengths to have! It is not about taking them away – it’s more about understanding excess, and that its okay not to be everything, all at once, all of the time.

Chances are you know some real superwomen/men, and perhaps a couple that only give off that image to convey power (not uncommon in places like social media platforms – but elsewhere too). The superwoman does everything from full time work, to taking care of the household, the food gathering and preparing, her children’s every need, all of her friends emotional and social needs, responds to family demands, caring for her family’s children, her community, the environment, the world, humanity the cosmos… Ok we’re getting wild here 😉 The superwoman or man is also doing all of this apparently looking like a million dollars, irrespective of age and levels of sleep deprivation, because she is eternally calm and composed?! Hmmmm….

It goes deeper than the skin though, and studies have shown that the ‘superwoman role’ is explored by the individual through contextual factors, benefits and liabilities (Woods-Giscombé, 2010, pp. 668 – 683). What is there to lose and gain? 

In the Woods-Giscombe (2010, pp. 668 – 683) study, participants reported that the Superwoman[/man] role had benefits such as preservation of self and family or community) and liabilities (relationship strain, stress-related health behaviours, and stress embodiment). Some of those negative mental and physical health outcomes might look like ‘psychological distress, depressive symptomology, obesity, and cardiovascular disease’ amongst other illnesses and disorders, or risky/excessive drinking and/or consumption of other drugs (Abrams, Maxwell, Pope & Belgrave, 2014).

In a study by Klochek (2018) it was discovered that teachers of education to children and young people that had more than six years’ experience, had remarkably greater value-based attitudes to students, as a result of a heightened ability to self-reflect and value-based self-conception. Basically, the more experienced teachers are in self-reflection and appreciation of self, results in a more humane, moral, fair and equitable treatment of the students (Klochek, 2018). 

This is also true to social work, psychology, human and community services. There is a direct correlation between how you treat yourself and how you come across. There is also a link between how many years’ experience you have in your field with supervision/mentoring (or a superhuman self-reflective capacity) and how safe your clients feel with you. Equally important, is how you feel treated by you? Are your negative core beliefs (and/or potentially your superwoman schema) negatively impacting your health, wellbeing and important relationships? Any self-sabotage amidst?

Some reflective questions for ye to ponder:

  • If you identify with the ‘superwoman/man’ modality, what are your core negative beliefs? Do you believe you are helpless, inadequate, or don’t deserve love? Can you see those negative core beliefs at play in your life?
  • If you don’t identify with the superwoman/man characteristics, do you have any other core negative beliefs, and are they ‘showing up’ in your health, your work and your relationships?

Don’t worry, it’s ‘super’ normal (like what I did there?) for everyone to be a bit uncomfortable to reflect on this stuff at times – that’s why it is good to have a trusted professional for your personal life (ask your GP), and/or an external supervisor or mentor in your professional life, as they will lighten it all up for you…. until you deeply ‘get it’ for yourself…

…that takes time lovelies x

“The start to healing is only a jump within away” 

Madden, S. 2019

If you feel triggered or need support please speak to a trusted confidante, find a qualified & registered Australian psychologist (check here) or registered social work practitioner (contact World Central here), a trustworthy religious/spiritual leader, find a support group in your area, or contact Lifeline by text, phone call or internet message chat here OR Beyond Blue here

ACADEMIC REFERENCES

Abrams, J. A., Maxwell, M., Pope, M., & Belgrave, F. Z. (2014). Carrying the World with the Grace of a Lady and the Grit of a Warrior: Deepening Our Understanding of the “Strong Black Woman” Schema. Psychology of Women Quarterly38(4), 503–518. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684314541418

Klochek, L. V. (2018). The Study of the Value-Based Reflection of Teachers. Проблеми сучасної психології, 2663 – 6956. DOI 10.32626/2227-6246.2018-40.163-173

Newell, S. (1993). The Superwoman Syndrome: Gender Differences in Attitudes Towards Equal Opportunities at Work and Towards Domestic Responsibilities at Home. Work, Employment & Society 7(2), 275 – 289.  Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/23747423?read-now=1&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Otani, K., Suzuki, A., Matsumoto, Y. & Shirata T. (2018). Marked Differences in Core Beliefs About Self and Others, Between Sociotropy and Autonomy: Personality Vulnerabilities in the Cognitive Model of Depression.The Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment (14), 863 – 866.  Retrieved from https://doaj.org/article/00729ddded9e4a2389eec0cc468e4ec8

Woods-Giscombé, C. L. (2010). Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health. Qualitative Health Research20(5), 668–683. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732310361892

Photo Credits

Allie Smith – daisies and quote; Anthony Ginsbrook – girl jumping; Harry Cao – Superwoman feature photo; Kelly Sikema – Dried flowers in book; Markus Spiske – Doll; Mattheiu Joannon – Two figures in network